9:14 a.m., Sunshine Village, Alberta: I watch a couple of heavily bundled skiers shuffle into the empty lift queue from my cozy, warm perch by the stone hearth. The temperature reads -24 (Celsius, thankfully, this is Canada), and I’m nursing my second cup of coffee at The Chimney Corner at Sunshine Mountain Lodge, watching fat flakes tumble down from the sky. The lifts began churning promptly at 9 a.m., and while I fully planned to be on the first chair … well, maybe I’ll catch it when it swings back around. I just want to enjoy the coziness a little while longer.
For most people who stay here, first chair is the raison d’etre—a near-guaranteed opportunity to be among the first on the slopes. The lodge sits at the top of the Sunshine Village Gondola, meaning once everyone heads down to the parking lot at the end of the ski day, the lucky occupants of these 84 rooms and suites are the only ones up on the mountain. It’s surreal. Especially late at night, when the stars look close enough to touch. And first thing on a morning like today, when fresh snow blankets Sunshine’s sprawling 3,300 acres, and no one has yet to set a ski on it.
What makes Sunshine Mountain Lodge even more unique is the fact that it’s the only ski-in/ski-out lodging in Banff National Park due to tight regulation on development by Parks Canada. It took years, but the lodge’s owners were finally able to expand the footprint and add the West Wing, which opened in 2009 with 30 lovely new rooms with jetted tubs, heated floors, and widescreen TVs, all with mountain views. The Main Lodge, originally built in 1964, was renovated most recently in 2005. Accommodations throughout are rustic-cozy, with lots of wood accents and airy windows wherever possible. A full-service restaurant, bar, and coffee shop keep bellies full, and nightly events, from movies to scavenger hunts, are a welcoming touch for families.
But when the sun sets over the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide, the place to be is the hotel’s swimming pool-sized hot tub, deliciously steamy on a stingingly cold February night. The storm that’s rumored to drop several inches by the morning has yet to move in, and stars light up the evening-scape like a planetarium. So much vastness, so few people. Surreal, indeed.
Four other lodges worth staying at when a storm is on its way:
GAME CREEK CHALET
Who needs first chair when you can sleep feet from Vail’s fresh groomed corduroy—and hit the slopes before that chair is even halfway to the top? Game Creek Chalet is a stunning four-bedroom residence at 10,500 feet with gourmet kitchen, outdoor hot tub, fi replace, and chef service (if desired). Oh, and views. So many views, with just yourself and your favorite people to enjoy them.
EAGLE EYE SUITES
Kicking Horse, B.C.
When you’ve got to get first tracks across Kicking Horse’s four expansive peaks, book one of the two Eagle Eye Suites, atop Eagle Eye Restaurant at 7,700 feet in the Purcells. A stay at the rustic-luxe post-and-beam suites includes dinner for two prepared by a personal chef, daily breakfast, a 24-hour butler, and even a ski instructor, who will take you to the goods the morning after a storm.
LODGE AT SUGAR BOWL
Sugar Bowl, Calif.
The only snowbound hotel in the States, the Lodge at Sugar Bowl was the brainchild of Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schroll, who, with investors, also erected the first lift here. The lodge would be expanded over the years, and today it offers comfy rooms, suites, and lofts, plus a sit-down dining room and a fitness center, all accessed via a quick gondola ride.
3100 KULMHOTEL GORNERGRAT
As if mountaintop hotels aren’t rad enough, this one has unimpeded views of the Matterhorn. Guests get to the 3100 aboard the Gornergrat Bahn cog railway from Zermatt, a scenic 33-minute ride on Europe's highest open-air railway. The property is the loftiest in the Alps, at 10,171 feet, and rooms boast airy windows for taking in the views. When the last train pulls out at 7 p.m., you’re marooned at the top. Luckily there are bars, restaurants, and even an observatory to ogle the stars.